SUBJECTS: Labor’s plan regarding water buybacks; Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Hakeem Al-Araibi; Medical transfer legislation and ensuring sick people get the help they require.

DAVID BEVAN (co-host): Tony Burke is the Shadow Environment Minister and and Shadow Water Minister in the Federal Parliament. He joins us now, good morning Mr Burke.


BEVAN: Can you explain to our listeners, what is Labor’s plan regarding buybacks? Because as we understand it at the moment theres a 1500GL cap on how much water will be bought back from farms. Now farmers hate this stuff because they see whole communities being destroyed as water is bought back and allowed to flow down the river. But are you going to lift that cap should you win Government?

BURKE: Thats right. And we made that decision yesterday. The cap on buyback was never part of the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It’s something that was introduced when the change of government happened. It was set at a level that it was expected that buyback wouldn’t get there anyway and buyback at the moment hasn’t yet reached the cap. But we are getting closer to the period where the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be due for its next review. Theres some doubt as to what are called the downwater or supply projects, so 605GL and when they’re ultimately audited we don't know whether they will add up to that and any gap will have to be filled by buyback. So by removing the cap we are making clear that if we end up having to provide more water for the rivers then this will not be a barrier to being able to do that.

BEVAN: So you’re not increasing the cap? It might only be 1500GL that will be bought back but you’re saying that you don't want a cap there, you don't want a restriction in terms of policy?

BURKE: Thats right. So it means that if in the years to come and after the summer that we have had you’d have to say that there is a possibility that at some point when the Murray-Darling Basin Authority conducts its own reviews as it does under law, may well decide that more water needs to be returned to the system to health than what they have previously recommended.

BEVAN: There will be regional communities right across the Murray-Darling Basin who would be very worried about that because they see buybacks as killing communities.

BURKE: That's right. But here's the challenge, if you don't remove the cap on buyback what do you do if the Authority does end up recommending more water needs to be returned to the rivers? Because all you've got left then, if you can't use buyback, is compulsory acquisition or some other method of getting the water otherwise or in the worst instance putting the Parliament in a situation where you'd be saying well we're now going to ignore the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. So, this cap was sent as a level which provided some assurance for those communities during the early years of the Plan but it does not make sense to keep it there as a permanent level because ultimately it will come up against the flexibility that the Authority needs and what it might recommend.

ALI CLARKE (co-host): Tony Burke you mentioned other methods there. We're awaiting a South Australian report, a $2 million report examining whether or not the desalination plant has a role to play in the River Murray. Are you in favour of using and utilising this South Australian asset?

BURKE: I'm in favour of whatever we can do that ends up restoring the system to health. I'd be surprised if using the desalination plant adds up. The last time it was looked at, my understanding is it didn't add up. But if they want to do more work on it and see whether or not it adds up then I've got no instinctive problem with it. What matters is that the rivers get the water that they need and that the system doesn't break down. So I'd be surprised if it comes off but I'm not going to say we're completely opposed to it or anything like that. Previously when it's been looked at it hasn’t added up.

BEVAN: But should you have an instinctive problem with it? Because it has been argued for a long time that one of the best guarantees for the River Murray is to have a city of a million and a half people right at the end of the river, relying on that. Now we don't actually use a lot of water, much less than irrigators and a city of a million and a half people our total consumption I think is around 200GL of water. But to guarantee this city has water you need those flows and you need water to carry the flow. So this is the best thing for the Murray.

BURKE: I hear that argument but I've got to say the best thing for the people of Adelaide is to make sure they've got as much water security as possible. The best thing for the rivers is to make sure that they're healthy and I just don't we need to set up that sort of brinkmanship situation for the city of Adelaide.

BEVAN: You’re Manager of Government business, it’s going to be a huge day…

BURKE: I wish! But Opposition.

BEVAN: Sorry, Opposition Business. It's going to be a huge day. Your opposite number is Christopher Pyne who we’ll ask you about him in just a moment but the debate over asylum seekers and medical transfers. Is the take away message from Hakeem al-Araibi that if you're a refugee you really ought to be very good at playing soccer?

BURKE: Well first of all I think everybody's welcoming the situation for Hakeem and that has been something where all sides of politics have worked together. So I'd want to keep that separate…

BEVAN: Well why should we keep it separate? Because here is a man who came to this country, he was accepted as a refugee, there would have been so many people in those detention centres who had exactly the same story; that they feared going back. In his case there's been this outpouring of support, that's great. Why? Why did he get all that support? Because the guy can play soccer?

BURKE: I think it's also the case that whenever an Australian national has faced challenges overseas in different ways The Australian Government has rallied around them. What we are seeing in the Parliament right now is a large number of people saying for all the serious issues about wanting to make sure that we don't have drownings at sea we shouldn't have as one of the so-called border protection measures a situation where people are denied health care that they need. It is possible to make sure that you've got sensible policies that make sure that people get to Australia safely without saying that we're going to compromise people's health as part of that equation.

BEVAN: And you're confident you can get past the independents? I’ve had a text conversation with Rebekha Sharkie this morning and she said ‘I can't talk until I actually sit down with Labor’ but you reckon you can get a deal past the independents?

BURKE: I hope so. I hope so and with these issues you don't know until everything's agreed. Certainly Bob Katter has made clear that he won't support a negotiation on this. That means every remaining crossbencher would need to to reach agreement. I hope we can get there because if we can it means we'll have a situation that no matter how much hysteria we get from Scott Morrison that won't take us back to a situation of the drownings that we've seen previously but at the same time we'll make sure that if someone desperately needs health care they get it.

BEVAN: Now your opposite number is Christopher Pyne from South Australia. He's the Manager of Government Business. We learnt yesterday that he saw Malcolm Turnbull as his ‘Aslan’. Do you see Bill Shorten as your ‘Aslan’?

CLARKE: And for those playing along at home Aslan of course is?

BEVAN: The lion, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Do you dreamy-eyed look across at Bill Shorten saying, you’re my Aslan?

BURKE: I’ve got to say it does fall short of that. I loved those C.S. Lewis books as a kid. I read them all. Every single one of them. But of course Aslan is there is a bit of a ‘Christ figure’ and I don't think any member of Parliament quite fits that bill.

CLARKE: So is Bill Shorten your luck dragon maybe?

BURKE: Bill’s the leader of the party and I really, really hope that we get a Shorten Labor Government soon.

CLARKE: Thank you very much Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water and Manager of Opposition Business.


Tony Burke